By Matt Dabbs
Joshua Graves, Greg Taylor & Matt Wallace
March – April, 2008
The kingdom of God is busting through the cracks on city streets in Denver, Colorado. A teenager nicknamed “Bulldog” gets his first meal in three days. Jennifer gets a second chance from a juvenile court judge—and even the judge says he doesn’t know why he’s giving grace. A girl nicknamed “Butterfly” accepts a warm blanket on a cold night.
And a young man affectionately called “Bingo” joins the band of wayfaring street friends called “Dry Bones” and becomes another flesh and blood sign that these dry bones strung out on drugs and unloved can become beloved and live and breathe and breathe life into others.
More than 2,000 homeless teenagers and young adults walk the streets of Denver, Colorado daily. A band of men and women with skull and crossbones and “Dry Bones” on their shirts befriends these youth daily. Their purpose is to show unconditional love to tattooed, pierced, pot-smoking, rebels who have seen or heard little of this kind of love in their lives. Ezekiel 37 provides the gothic image of bones that the youth relate to but more than that, it puts flesh on the bones of the mission to breathe love and life into kids heading to certain death from harsh street life.
Josh Graves, frequent New Wineskins contributor, and Greg Taylor, New Wineskins senior editor, took a “turf tour” with Matt and Nikki Wallace, and Robbie Goldman, three of the five full-time staff members of Dry Bones.
Walking through large culverts, under bridges, stopping to talk to youth ranging from 16-25 years old, we saw a side of cities that few notice: heroin wrappers litter the streets if you get out of your car and look down at the sidewalk; under the bridges we saw where homeless youth tried to sleep and hide out, we talked with a few of the youth in the park directly in front of the capital building—many were smoking pot. The Dry Bones staff invited youth to hang out with them, asked about their lives, showed love to them with no strings attached, played pool at a local hall, and fed nearly one hundred youths outside the pool hall.
We asked them about the revolution they are part of, what brought them to where they are, what God is doing on the streets through the poor, the outcasts, the recovering drug addicts, and runaways. Matt Wallace spoke for the group, and some of his answers are personal opinions using “I” but so much of what this ever-expanding Dry Bones ministry does is a team effort and response include ideas and opinions of the group and other individuals.
Wineskins: What gives you hope in your work?
Dry Bones: I love it when a homeless youth truly begins to believe they are loved and valuable. Most of the kids have no grid for true love. Their definitions of love are skewed and extremely varied. Deep true love that comes from God is so real that you can almost physically see the difference in a young person when they begin to believe it.
Wineskins: What does the kingdom of God look like in inner city Denver?
Dry Bones: We experience the kingdom of God breaking out in coffee shops, street corners, pool halls, parks, storm drains, underground tunnels, and McDonalds. We discover the kingdom of God growing within conversation, meaningful relationship, laughter, and meals. We also experience it cracking the foundations of Denver in the middle of heart-wrenching pain, addiction, and suffering.
Wineskins: Give us some examples of the kingdom breaking in.
Dry Bones: We experience the kingdom of God when “Butterfly” accepts a warm blanket for a cold night or when “Bulldog” receives his first meal in three days. We have experienced it with a Denver County judge who says, “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’ll give you a second chance, Jennifer.”
We’ve realized that the kingdom of God is much bigger than a tract or a collection of well-spoken words. It’s so big that it actually breaks out in everyday life kind of things. The kingdom of God looks like the Holy Spirit doing extraordinary things within the lives of seemingly ordinary people and common events.
Wineskins: What does evangelism look like in this kind of context?
Dry Bones: I feel like we experience the kingdom of God every time we choose to follow Christ and show up. Sometimes that’s a blanket and sometimes that’s studying the Bible with someone who wants that. Evangelism is about so much more than saving people from hell. I believe in God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven – not just a “get out of hell free” pass. If we will live within and be pledged to the Kingdom of God, then our motives for faith sharing and life in general become transformed. I believe that salvation is about today and that the good news of Christ actually does have the power to transform lives. Following Christ into the Kingdom of God is much more than religion and “being good” so that we don’t have to go to hell. Eternity begins now and the Kingdom of God is here. It is my goal to seek it and to encourage others to do the same.
Wineskins: What is the mission of Dry Bones?
Matt Wallace: In the context of relationships, serving and loving in the way of Jesus, we meet the spiritual and physical needs of homeless youth and young adults. We seek to equip, inspire, and deploy believers to relieve suffering, facilitate reconciliation, and free the heart to love.
Wineskins: Tell us about your team.
Dry Bones: Five full-time staff members: Rebekah Duke, Robbie Goldman, Matt Wallace, Nikki Wallace, and Susan Zimmerhackel. We take a strong team approach, and we work well together. We have a board of directors comprised of nine men and women from around the United States. We also hire a one-year intern every year. For 2008, Zack Smith will be joining us.
Wineskins: Matt, how did you personally get here?
Matt Wallace: I feel God has brought me into this ministry because of my gifts, personality, and availability. Others are gifted, built for, and available to be fourth grade teachers – I can’t imagine! I feel blessed and somewhat lucky to be in the life situation of living in Denver and working with street kids. I have fallen in love with homeless youth, and I’m learning more and more every day about what it means to serve in this particular role within the kingdom of God. For now, this vocation is where my heart truly comes alive.
I gave a copy of Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel: Visual Edition to a street kid a week ago. In the inside front cover I wrote, “You are deeply loved. [signed] the Dry Bones staff.” I saw him again last night. He sat down next to me and began crying. He told me that he read the book cover to cover within the first few hours after I had given it to him. He said that he loved the message in the book, but more than that, he loved the inside front cover. He told me that every day between then and now, he had picked up the book, opened the front cover, and just stared at the words, “You are deeply loved.” He then said, “Matt, I think I believe this.” Our relationship will be different from now on.
I desperately want every street kid in Denver to no longer be able to say, “No one has ever loved me.”
Wineskins: The word “missional” is thrown out there a lot these days. How would you describe or define missional in terms of what Dry Bones does?
Dry Bones: Since that word became popular after I had already graduated from college, I’ll be honest – I had to look it up on Wikipedia. According to Wiki’s definition, I think that Dry Bones is a missional ministry.
We are willing to accept young people right where they are. We seek to share the love of Christ and discover the Kingdom of God with all people, regardless of whether or not they accept Him upon our first or tenth encounter. It is extremely important to us to not shove the gospel down people’s throats. Words are often used, the Bible is taught, but more often than not, we provide a listening ear and a safe spiritual environment. We feel that when the gospel is lived that Christ speaks for himself. The gospel is good news, it is attractive, and it is compelling within the desperate and hurting culture of downtown street youth.
Wineskins: What is one false stereotype that “homefull” persons have about homeless persons?
Dry Bones: One stereotype that I get frustrated with is the idea that life is filled with a bunch of “just” answers. “Why don’t they just get a job? Why don’t they just quit using drugs? Why don’t they just . . .” you name it. Life on the streets is tougher than people think it is. The reasons that people become homeless and then get stuck, run much deeper than laziness. Once you know the poor, particularly the poor in spirit, you soon realize that there are very few “just” answers.
Wineskins: Dry Bones is based off Ezekiel 37. Talk about that.
Dry Bones: Of course, our name comes from Ezekiel 37. This passage speaks to the homeless youth. They love the story because it not only has cool skeletons and stuff, but it tells them that God can bring anything to life. The interesting thing about Ezekiel 37 is that it is a passage about God’s people. I like this passage for this reason. When God says, “Can these bones live?” it’s not just a question to us about homeless youth of Denver, it’s a question to all of us about our own churches. It’s been really incredible to watch God use stinky homeless kids to rattle the dry bones of churches and vise versa. We see it happening . . . dry bones are coming to life and a vast army is rising from the streets and within churches.
We also trust in Jesus’ prayer of John 17. This passage reminds us that God has not only sent us into the world, but that he has prayed for our protection. It reminds us to not seek comfort and safety, but rather to seek to follow God.
Wineskins: Is there another ministry out there that Dry Bones looks at as a model?
Dry Bones: Honestly, we have many heroes that we have learned from. We are inspired by New Horizons in Seattle.
Wineskins: Do you work with other churches or similar ministry efforts in Denver?
Dry Bones: We depend on several churches, families, and individuals throughout Denver, as our volunteers, to build relationships with the street kids. We try to facilitate opportunities for Christian people to connect to homeless youth for the mutual benefit of genuine meaningful relationship. We also collaborate with Sox Place – a daytime drop-in center for homeless youth. Sox Place is a Christian ministry working with the same group of kids. We also collaborate with Denver’s St. Francis Center. While this church is mostly geared for working with older homeless, we utilize their services for our youth from time to time.
Wineskins: How has your understanding of Jesus changed in this work?
Dry Bones: I realize more and more every day why Jesus hung out with the outcasts. Not only were they in need of friendship, purpose, healing, and Life, but they were also some of the most real, amazing, nonjudgmental, and fun people around. I believe that Jesus always first meets people in love – right where they are. The love of Christ is powerful – so much so that it doesn’t take me preaching, judging, or “having it all figured out” to share it.
Wineskins: How has your understanding of “Church” changed?
Dry Bones: The importance of the “Body of Christ” and its “many parts” has become more and more evident to me. When we first moved to Denver, we envisioned starting a church for the street kids. Once we started attending Lakewood Church of Christ, a lot naturally changed for that vision. One day, a young 15-year-old street kid named “Crash” asked if he could come to church with me. My response was hesitation and excuses, “Well, I mean . . . yeah. My church doesn’t really rock out or anything. We don’t even have a band. There are some people who dress nice and some who don’t.” Crash interrupted me and said, “I don’t care. I just want to go to church. I like you guys. I want to find out about your God.” That next Sunday, I picked him up for church. The moment we walked through the door he was welcomed with open arms. This kid with piercings and filthy clothes was completely loved and accepted. Nobody asked him what drugs he had used the night before. No one made him sit in the back because of his clothes or his odor. The most elderly woman in the church actually gave him a hug and said, “I like your mohawk.” He tried to sing the songs, smiled the whole service, stepped out for a cigarette every twenty minutes, and asked if he could come back next week. He soon gave his life to Christ.
I thought that I needed to create a church environment where these kids would be comfortable—with other kids dressed like punks, a rockin’ band, a hip message, etc. It turns out that what the street youth (all people) really wanted was love, acceptance, genuine friendship, truth, and family. The church that I attend has crying babies, wheel chaired grannies, and everything in between. There are men in suits and men in shorts—people with loud personalities and those who whisper. Each part of the body does its job and there’s a part for everyone. To me, church is no longer mostly about worship style, wardrobe, or song choices. Rather, it’s about the family coming together and doing and being what Christ asked us to do and be—his hands, feet, eyes, ears, and heart—having equal concern for each other (1 Cor. 12).
Wineskins: During the times of “despair,” how do you all work though that?
Dry Bones: Despair is a risk that accompanies the worthy call of love. We don’t dwell or even mostly live in despair, but we’re not afraid of it. I’ve felt hopeless, yet I’m supposed to be a provider of hope. I’ve felt down, yet I’m supposed to lift up. All of these emotions could defeat us, or they could inspire us to action. It’s ok for our hearts to hurt, to feel the gravity of a terrible situation, or to even be broken. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s ok to feel despaired when you’re despaired – it’s a real emotion and I would have to choose a different life if I wanted to avoid it. The key is to not believe lies, get stuck in it, or let it defeat you.
Today, I listened to two young kids comparing their fathers to each other. Both have abusive dads which have led to the kids’ lives on the streets. The boy asked the girl, “Doesn’t your dad beat the shit out of you?” The girl responds, “Yeah, but I love him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” The conversation went on and on – each kid sharing the unspeakable struggles of their short lives. I found myself in despair for these two kids. A few short words are all I could offer. “I hope you two will not let the struggles you’ve faced in your past define who you are or your future. These things should have never happened to you. You are not worthless. You are worth so much more than the way you have been treated.” As I went home, I couldn’t stop thinking about these kids. I can’t wait to see them tomorrow because they will need to hear it again.
So despair has to inspire, but it also has to be fought. I always see hopelessness as the enemy. God brings hope, so we have to push through the despair and discover it. Then we have to share it.
I would love to know more about how Jesus dealt with despair – we do know that he cried out to God (all night in some instances). We also know that his heart hurt for the sins of people. He even had a kingdom of God perspective and still grieved for the lives and actions of people (Matthew 23).
We definitely don’t have this all figured out. Being on a team helps. For example, when I’m down, Robbie is usually up and will encourage me. Prayer for each other is huge. Prayer from our supporters is powerful. We know that the battle for our and the kids’ hearts is spiritual and must be fought on a spiritual level.
Wineskins: Where do you see this effort going in five, ten years?
Dry Bones: I assume in five years we will have solved the homeless problem in Denver and will move on. Right? As Christ has told us, “The poor will always be with you” (Mt 26:11). I agree with Shane Claiborne who says that Jesus did say that the poor would always be with us and then asks us, “Where are the poor? Are they still with you?” He’s right – too often, they’re not with us anymore – sitting with us on Sunday mornings, a part of our church families, or in our lives.
So . . . “What does growth look like?” is a very big question we’re asking ourselves right now. Dry Bones is very grass roots. I think that we will continue to be so. It is the nature of the type of ministry we are doing and the nature of the culture of kids we work with. I truly hope that in the future more and more kids will have found Life in Christ. I hope that we are able to connect many more youth into meaningful mentoring relationships with older, more mature Christians. I hope to see the youth that have become Christians continue growing in their life with Christ. I hope that we can inspire and free more Christian people to love those that don’t look like themselves. We have many ideas of how these things will happen. I think that the growth of Dry Bones will be evident through the implementation of these ideas.
Matt and Nikki Wallace are leaders in the Dry Bones Ministry among young people in Denver, Colorado. The Web site says, “Our services are geared and evolve around their needs. Dry Bones finds great hope for this population of younger homeless youth. These kids have not yet given up and they maintain a level of self-respect. Their addictions are new or just forming. Mental illness is present but not common across the board.” Contact Matt at this link.
Joshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. Josh did graduate studies at Abilene Christian University and Lipscomb University (M.Div.) He’s co-written the Study Guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press) with noted author Lee Camp (forthcoming). He is married to Kara, the real theologian in the family. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his online journal at [www.joshgraves.blogspot.com].
Greg Taylor is senior editor of New Wineskins. He is also associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His newest book, co-authored with Anne-Geri’ Fann, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, was released by Thomas Nelson in May 2006. His novel is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Before moving to Tulsa in 2005, the Taylors lived in Nashville, Tennessee four years, and they lived in Uganda seven years, where they worked with a church planting team. His blog is http://gregtaylor.cc.
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